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January 21, 2014

The Top 3 Corporate Communication Mistakes of 2013

2013 gave us many examples of both good and poorly handled communication from leaders and brands. You may remember that we weighed in on some public leadership and communication fails throughout the year in our Hit or Miss’ive column, but there were more.


Take a look below as we detail 3 examples of poor communication from 2013. 

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s firing of a Patch employee and subsequent apology

The first example of poor communication came in August 2013, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced that AOL would be reducing the number of Patch websites. Soon afterward, Armstrong spoke to 1,000 employees on a conference call that was intended to boost morale and discuss the future.

What happened instead was far from morale-boosting.

Armstrong ended up firing Patch’s Creative Director, Abel Lenz, in front of everyone. Four days after he fired Lenz, Armstrong sent AOL employees an apology for his behavior. Unfortunately, rather than using it as an opportunity to take ownership, in a direct, heartfelt way, Armstrong missed the mark. He made excuses for his behavior rather than owning up to it and sharing what he learned.

Yahoo’s poor communication of its “in office” policy

The second example of bad communication came in February, when the head of HR at Yahoo sent employees the internal memo leaked around the world. It told Yahoo employees that telecommuting or working from home would soon no longer be an option and that those who worked remotely must relocate to an office or quit.

The communication around the policy sparked a strong negative reaction, and it wasn’t difficult to see why: a poorly constructed memo failed to explain the rationale behind such a significant culture change, leaving Yahoo employees upset and frustrated and launching a national conversation about work-from-home policies.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer initially said via a spokesperson that the company does not discuss internal matters. But two months after the memo leaked, Marissa Mayer finally broke her silence. At a Los Angeles conference for human resource professionals, Mayer began speaking about Yahoo’s culture, but after a few minutes interrupted herself to address what she referred to as “the elephant in the room.” She refused to waver on the policy, explaining that some of the best ideas come from in-person collaboration and that the in-office policy was “wrongly perceived as industry narrative.”

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries’ old comments that drew new attention

The third of our poor communication examples started in 2006, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries gave an interview to in which he stated that the retail chain’s clothes were exclusively for thin, attractive, “cool kids.” Those comments were brought back to life in the spring of 2013 when quoted in a widely-read read Business Insider blog post. The comments unleashed strong backlash from social media, consumers, popular bloggers and high-profile individuals. Jeffries waited 12 days after the Business Insider blog post was published to address the comments, but his words only attracted more negative attention. Rather than taking ownership of his statement and apologizing, Jeffries invalidated the public reaction by stating that the quote was “taken out of context,” and that he regretted his words “were interpreted in a manner that has caused offense.”

The ordeal is still not over: Jeffries continues to face strong criticism from both the media and shareholders. Just one month ago, one of Abercrombie’s most significant shareholders wrote a nine-page letter to Abercrombie’s board, calling for the company to replace Jeffries as CEO when his contract expires in February. Jeffries contract was renewed a few weeks ago, but he continues to receive negative attention as people cast doubt on his leadership abilities.

How might these mistakes and lessons help you in the future?

- David Grossman


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